Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful
 by Deborah Kay Davies

Parthian 2008 Paperback
First collection? Yes
awards: Winner, Wales Book of the Year 2009

Deborah Kay Davies was born in Pontypool in South Wales. Her first collection of poetry, Things You Think I Don't Know, was published by Parthian in 2006. Her stories have been published in various anthologies and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She has a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from Cardiff University, where she now teaches creative writing.

"She has drawn a naked baby lying in some grass. From the neck down it appears normal, but where its head should be there is a radio. Notes float up from the radio’s mouth. Then I see that instead of an umbilical cord the baby has an electric flex coming out of its navel. The flex floats up towards the top of the page and ends in an unconnected plug. I ask her, what does it mean? It’s the radio-baby, she says patiently, as if I’m incredibly stupid.’"

Reviewed by Brian George

This is Deborah Kay Davies’s first collection of short stories, though she has published one collection of poetry and a number of her stories have previously appeared in anthologies. It’s a powerful, unsettling book, and was a deserved winner of the English language award in the 2009 Wales Book of the Year.

The nineteen linked pieces in the collection tell the story of two sisters, Grace and Tamar. The construction of the book is interesting, as the stories move forward in chronological progression, but the overall effect is completely different from even the most fragmentary of novels. In Davies’s collection, each story stands as a self-contained piece – indeed a number of them had already won prizes or appeared in other anthologies before being linked together in the current collection. There is no need for the writer to indulge in lengthy exposition, or refer back explicitly to earlier events: the reader is left to do a lot of the work in filling in the gaps in the chronology and developing explanations for the sisters’ psychological development.

More importantly, perhaps, the writing has the taut, pared-down quality of short story writing at its best. For me, the only story in which this tautness slackened was the longest, Grace and the Basset Hound. Though it builds to a sickeningly powerful climax, the opening section of the story is slightly too expository for my liking.

The book tells the story of the two sisters as they grow from childhood through to their thirties. Viewpoint shifts constantly between the two main characters, and the author uses a mix of first and third person narratives in the stories. The stories take place in the south Wales valleys (specifically, the Eastern valley of Gwent), but the setting could almost be anywhere. There is little that is typically Welsh about the context, though the immediate physical environment is observed with sharp attention to detail.

The book’s construction perfectly mirrors the fragmentary, alienated nature of the girls’ lives and psychological makeup. This is emphatically not some sentimental, cutesy portrayal of children growing up. Both girls appear troubled, even damaged, in different ways. The stories focus very sharply on the female characters: the two sisters, of course, but also their mother, who is a strong presence in the first half of the book in particular. The stories show the difficult relationship Grace and Tamar have with each other. Sibling rivalry is taken to an extreme pitch in a number of the stories, with the girls prone to inflicting a worrying level of violence on each other, and routinely insulting each other as they get older. The reader senses that, despite all this, there is a strong, unbreakable bond between them, and this is made explicit in the moving final story, Cords. (Davies has a penchant for laconic, one-word titles, usually concrete nouns, which do a brilliant job of encapsulating the essence of a story).

There are also some very effective portrayals of the experience of motherhood: the book opens with the mother giving birth to Tamar, the younger sister, and Radio Baby contains one of the most chilling depictions of the effects of post-natal depression that I’ve ever read in fiction. The relationship between the girls and their mother is equally troubled: there are no sentimental pictures of family life here.

The male characters are shadowy, ineffectual or grotesque, prone to misunderstanding, neglecting or abusing the girls and women they come into contact with.

Sex is a key theme throughout the collection, with the girls acutely aware of their own sexuality from an early age. The stories show them moving through brief flirtations with romantic delusions as pre-adolescents, into casual sexual encounters, marriage and divorce. One of the strongest stories, Thong, shows Grace stealing Tamar’s boyfriend from under her nose, and Tamar’s characteristically brutal reaction.

One of the strengths of Davies’s writing is its precise, but unshowy, evocation of sense impressions and the physical world:
"Grace can hear the clock tutting. Its pendulum slices through pure air. The organ pipes lean over as if, like her, they are listening to the pews crack. She can smell the pews, each one exudes beeswax and pine. When Grace was a little girl she though beeswax was the smell of God."
This kind of descriptive writing is never indulged in purely for effect: the sisters have a heightened awareness of the world of the senses, and at times they seem imprisoned by the vividness of these reactions, unable to connect with normal codes of behaviour in the "real world". In one story Grace notes that her mind "has emptied like a winter swimming pool".

The most powerful of the stories, such as Radio Baby and Cords, manage the difficult trick of combining precise description with a haunting, dreamlike quality in which the characters (the mother in Radio Baby and Tamar in Cords) appear on the verge of madness. Perhaps the most striking quality of the writing, though, is its tone: matter-of-fact yet surreal, often sardonic but with intense poetic flashes:
"I become aware again of the sound the cappuccino machine is making, and the tinkling of spoons. My sister and I are holding hands tightly…We are both crying silently…In the dream you tell me we have to cut the cord, she says. She squeezes me even harder, the brown of her eyes glittering with tears. But you see, she says, shaking my clasped hands, this cord, we can never break it, can we?"
Many of these stories pack a terrific emotional punch, which hits the reader all the harder for emerging from beneath the surface of apparently inconsequential everyday reality.

Brian George lives in South Wales. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in literary journals, and he was a prizewinner in the 2001 Rhys Davies Competition. His first collection of short stories, Walking the Labyrinth, is published by Stonebridge Publications..

Brian's other Short Reviews: Nathan Englander "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges"   

Jayne Anne Phillips "Black Tickets"
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